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Thomas R. Cutler


Electronic Work Instructions Address Manufacturing Employee Retention, Quality

Technology provides consistent instructions, real-time feedback. Everyone benefits.

Published: Wednesday, July 18, 2018 - 11:03

Although automation has been successful in replacing repetitive, simple tasks, the human workforce still plays a critical role in manufacturing. Even the most sophisticated and automated manufacturing operations rely on human operators to configure, run, and properly maintain production equipment.

However, with low unemployment, talent retention in the manufacturing industry is particularly difficult, meaning manufacturers often spend a lot of time and money training employees, only to have them quit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017, 38 million people quit their jobs voluntarily. About 77 percent of those individuals quit for preventable reasons—like more structure around career development, better work/life balance, and manager behavior.

When a new employee gets hired at a manufacturing plant they often get little to no onboarding, or are treated poorly by a manager. Perhaps worst of all, more than half of all manufacturing employees report not having proper safety mechanisms in place to prevent an accident. With so many job openings currently unfilled, it is easy for an employee to find a new job where she can get a better experience from day one.

Electronic work instruction technology helps address these issues. By implementing such a solution, companies can more quickly train employees, clearly communicate with line operators, disseminate essential updates quickly, and verify training from anywhere. Everyone carrying out the instructions is doing so to an approved standard, reducing costly errors and rework.

Electronic work instructions allow human resources (HR) directors, plant managers, and the entire workforce to ensure the job is being done to meet zero defect goals, address all safety requirements (e.g., from OSHA or the FDA), and quantify accuracy and production objectives. All employees are trained the same way, using the same materials, leading to a better sense of structure, which helps employee retention.

Paper instructions hinder data collection

Operators are expected to perform flawlessly but are often not provided the technology solutions to help them do so. Operators are working from muscle memory, which results in inconsistent execution and significant rework. Products are increasingly complex, and making them requires significant skill. Operators are often faced with processes that are long, complex, variable, or completely customized (such as an engineer-to-order production process). They need help to guide them in making such products.

But paper-based work instructions are problematic. They may be hard to follow, they are not easily customized to different product models, and they do not collect data. Operators are asked to use paper-based forms to report defects or to conduct audits.

Engineers involved with process, quality, lean, and safety, do not have the data they need to do their work. As described above, since operators most often do not work with digital tools, they do not generate data that can be used by process engineers for process improvement.

Therefore, engineers spend significant amounts of time trying to find data rather than acting on data and identifying the root cause of problems; they spend time running manual time studies, walking around with stopwatches to determine how long a process is supposed to take.

Engineers prepare paper-based work instructions that are not referenced, and use paper-based quality forms that are often not filled correctly and require constant transcription to Excel. They have limited visibility into shop-floor operations, limited ability to enforce consistent work, and limited ability to optimize processes.

Manufacturing leadership needs consistent KPIs to run their operations but rely on data collected on paper or from ERP/MES systems that often lack real-time, shop-floor information. They have limited visibility into where the opportunities to increase efficiencies are within their operations.

Ditch the binders

For many manufacturers work instructions act as the key way of transferring organizational knowledge to train new employees. Manufacturing organizations want to retain employees, and electronic work instructions set the labor force up for success and improve customer satisfaction.

Traditionally, work instructions were held in large paper binders, requiring employees to locate the correct binder and flip to the right page to get started executing a process. This paper-based process was challenging to update because old copies had to be tracked down and replaced, with verification happening when time permitted. With the advancement of electronic work instructions, these data are now centralized, allowing the right personnel to update and distribute them instantly. Old versions are archived for record keeping, and new versions are instantly deployed to employees. Digital systems allow for better data collection and analytics, giving organizations insights into their operations to help them improve.

Ease the change to electronic work instructions

Many new manufacturing technologies require implementing a new system that requires additional employee resources. Updating to a new work instruction technology might cause a significant interruption to everyday processes throughout the company.

Randy Blaylock with eFlex Systems, a developer of work instruction software, explained that many companies ease this transition by converting existing documents into electronic work instructions based on the areas with the greatest defect rates or QA/QC challenges. This way, companies leverage electronic work instructions much faster than expected. As time and resources permit, less critical work instructions are brought into the electronic work instruction system.

Young innovative companies looking for a strong competitive edge are the most receptive to electronic work instructions. Also, companies with a younger workforce leading their projects can be more comfortable with digital solutions, and better understand the long-term value provided to the business.

Better process control, access control, and training

Electronic work instructions give companies better control over the processes employees are referencing, as well as a more secure way of disseminating updates to teams across the organization.

Access control is achieved by allowing specific employees and teams access to the correct information and ensuring that the right people have edit and change permissions within the software.

Better training of both new and existing employees regarding new processes or updates occurs automatically. The data collected directly from within work instructions can be used to validate training and ensure that employees are up to speed on any changes. Employees are no longer trained differently depending on whom they shadow. With electronic work instruction-based training, everyone is trained to a common standard, making sure the work is done the right way, every time.

What is most exciting is the rethinking of the human/computer interaction with the aim of making the user experience more seamless, natural, and integrated on the plant floor. Digital workflows augment, extend, and amplify natural human abilities, helping the manufacturing workforce to make innovative products while eliminating human error—and doing all of this at a much faster pace.

Manufacturers across all industries, from aerospace to apparel to pharma, are realizing the value proposition in electronic work instructions. Discrete manufacturing is probably the most receptive to these technologies because it requires a lot of manual processes that involve both people and machines. But even continuous manufacturing customers have manual processes done by people, such as performing changeover and maintenance of machines, for which electronic work instructions add substantial value. In general, whenever there is a manual operation involved with a high cost of error, electronic work instruction should be considered.



About The Author

Thomas R. Cutler’s picture

Thomas R. Cutler

Thomas R. Cutler is the President and CEO of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based, TR Cutler Inc., celebrating its 21st year. Cutler is the founder of the Manufacturing Media Consortium including more than 8000 journalists, editors, and economists writing about trends in manufacturing, industry, material handling, and process improvement. Cutler authors more than 1,000 feature articles annually regarding the manufacturing sector. More than 4,500 industry leaders follow Cutler on Twitter daily at @ThomasRCutler. Contact Cutler at trcutler@trcutlerinc.com.